Prada Marfa, the art installation on the side of federal highway US 90 some 35 miles northwest of Marfa, has been vandalized yet again, this time refashioned into a “TOMS Marfa.” Early Sunday morning, sometime after dark and before an early-morning rain, the sides of the adobe building were painted a hue of periwinkle blue associated with TOMS’ branding. The shoe company’s logos were hung from the front awning like prayer flags, and defaced Bibles bearing quotes from mainstream artists like Jack Kerouac and Matisse hung from the TOMS flags and were strewn around the building. A display case with six glittery right TOMS shoes resting on Bibles was placed before the door. And attached to the display case lock was a copy of TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie’s business book about social entrepreneurship, Start Something That Matters (for each pair of TOMS sold, the company donates a pair to a child in need).
Rita Weigart, a secretary at the public school a mile away in Valentine, where she is also a resident, spotted the vandalism around 8:15 a.m. on her way to the El Paso airport. Her sister, Lisa Morton, a reporter for the Van Horn Advocate, alerted the Jeff Davis County Sheriff’s Office.
The suspect? An agitpop artist that goes by 9271977. A signature—J.2014—on the eastern side of the Prada Marfa building matched those previously used by this artist in works visible on his website. The motive? If the verbose manifesto is any indication, it’s a comment on commercialism and economic inequality imposed on a piece that is, as Prada Marfa artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset explained, already a comment on commercialism and economic inequality.
Part of the three-page manifesto posted on Prada Marfa Sunday morning (and captured in its entirety in the photographs below) reads:
Nearly nine years since the inauguration of Prada Marfa, an investigative viewer can only assume the structure represents the reflection of a contemporary moment that catering [sic] to a society designed to respond to branding, consumption and money. Blended with narcissism and unethical hedonism, this is the society’s apocalyptic theater….
Prada Marfa in its past existence served its purpose; but today in 2014—for better or worse—society has seen advancement in social connectivity, global war, entitlements, corporate austerity, poverty, destruction of nature, desensitization of life, faltering education, sickness, substance and food abuse, exploitation of indigenous nations, corrupt banking systems, gone amuck free market neocapitalism, disharmonious politics and impudent religions…just some of the stewing ingredients of Earth colonization.
The screed goes on to criticize TOMS in particular. The vandal takes issue with the company’s failure to use its supply chain to alleviate the poverty about which it is supposedly concerned. TOMS has long been the subject of such criticism. Despite the company’s “One for One” campaign, vowing to donate a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair bought, TOMS has long been the subject of controversy because their manufacturing takes place in developing countries (like China, Ethiopia, and Argentina) and because the company often donates to conservative causes, like pro-life organizations.
Of course choosing Prada Marfa as a “canvas” is also a play for quite a bit of publicity.
Ballroom Marfa, the local gallery that produced the piece in collaboration with New York-based Art Production Fund, filed a complaint with the Jeff Davis County Sheriff’s Department, according to Prada Marfa site representative Boyd Elder. Some sources say the suspect has been spotted in Marfa at a taco trailer called Boyz2Men and that the vandal also put fire extinguishers in front of another art gallery in Marfa. No arrests have yet been made at this time.
The cameras installed to protect Prada Marfa were not functional, according to Elder. The building is insured and Ballroom Marfa executive director Mellissa McDonnell Lujan estimated the damages to be between $10,000 and $20,000 ($5,000 for the paint alone).
Nevertheless the installation, which was initially intended to naturally decay, will be restored. “No decisions have been made other than that Ballroom Marfa and Art Production Fund will restore Prada Marfa, and it will remain a public site,” Ballroom Marfa wrote in a public statement released yesterday. “Otherwise people would be too sad,” said Elmgreen.
Elmgreen learned of the vandalism late yesterday afternoon, from Norway where he is preparing for a solo exhibition.
“Unfortunately the vandalism that has been going on has some kind of arty farty overtones. It seems like it’s someone who claims that they are activists,” he said. “When I was young activism was something that would include some sort of risk—like fighting the authorities not attacking other artist’s artworks.”
Prada Marfa, he said, has suffered more attacks than any of his and Ingar Dragset’s other public art projects, including a memorial in Berlin for the homosexual victims of the holocaust.
Because Prada Marfa is a work that people frequently reference and share photographs of on social media, Elmgreen believes that those “overly addicted to social media” believe it’s a good “target” through which to attract attention and “get their message through.” (Incidentally the show for which Elmgreen is currently preparing, called “Biography”, is a commentary on how people attempt to constitute “outstanding” biographies for themselves on social media, “no matter their qualifications or talents.”)
“There’s too many opportunistic assholes out there,” Elder said of the vandal.
By Sunday afternoon much of the vandalism had already been removed. On Monday morning, Weigart and three others washed the paint off the windows, eventually using a firetruck that Weigart, who is a volunteer firefighter, borrowed with the permission of her fire chief. Passersby, including a couple from New York and San Antonio, stopped to help scrape residual glue from the bullet-resistant polycarbonate.
“We took off the ugly and threw away the trash,” Weigart said.
Prada Marfa, which has been a popular destination since it opened in 2005, made news in the fall when the Texas Department of Transportation said it violated the 1965 Highway Beautification Act and that they considered the work illegal advertising because of its use of a trademarked logo (the Prada logo). In a press release following Sunday’s vandalism, Ballroom Marfa stated: “We’re close to resolving the widely publicized issues with the Texas Department of Transportation, and we expect Prada Marfa will be around for years to come.”
Here are photos that Will Milne, a Denton-based photographer, who stumbled upon TOMS Marfa while vacationing nearby, took on Sunday morning before the installation was cleaned up later that day: